Michael Dirda

A Giotto fresco from
A Giotto fresco from "Italian Frescoes, the Age of Giotto, 1280-1400" (Abbeville, $135) (Arena Chapel (Cappella Degli Scrovegni), Padua)

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 4, 2005

THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER

The Elizabethan Prayer Book

Edited by John E. Booty

Virginia/Folger. 427 pp. $29.95

W.H. Auden used to warn against those who read the Bible for its prose. Ignore this advice. The hoopla of the next few weeks should be interrupted from time to time with quiet moments when we reflect on our lives and the years past and to come, and one of the best ways to do this is by meditating on grave and noble sentences. So, whether believer or not, turn to the Gospel of Luke:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . . And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

As a boy, I would hear these words spoken aloud toward the end of December, year after year, and they never failed to deliver a shivery thrill of pleasure. I used to wonder why. The sentences were utterly plain, both in diction and syntax. Neither did they possess any narrative excitement, since I knew the story already, indeed knew it far better than any other in all the world. But the language -- like that of so many other passages from the Bible -- enchanted me with what I now think of as its deeply felt seriousness.

The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Even among our stylists, we prefer breeziness and irony, sometimes laced with snarky wit and street vulgarity. This "in your face" writing somehow feels personal and honest, more sincere or authentic than an elevated and poetical diction. No one wants epithets like "pontifical," "sermonizing" or "artificial" attached to his writing. Nonetheless, there are times when only the full organ roll of liturgical prose can match the glory or sacredness of the occasion. These are, of course, those times when we make our way to church or synagogue for weddings, funerals and religious holy days.

In English there are five main sources for this kind of religious eloquence: The King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, the hymns of writers like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and others, and the classical traditions of oratory and homily. What links them all is a Shaker plainness and cleanness of diction, just barely covering profound spiritual conviction and emotion. This is, in short, the speech of men and women doing the Lord's work, honoring him and praising him with due reverence, ceremony and fervor.

For instance, what soul doesn't feel, as well as hear, the sorrowful music in the Prayer Book's "Order for the Burial of the Dead"?

"Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death." I quote the 1559 Elizabethan version of these words, the version known to Shakespeare and the Renaissance (and now again available in a handsome volume, edited by John E. Booty, from the University of Virginia/Folger Shakespeare Library). These magnificently somber phrases eventually build to one of the great climaxes in English literature:

"Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, and that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye by the last trump. For the trump shall blow, and the dead shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed. . . . Death where is thy sting? Hell where is thy victory?"


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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